Iowa Summer Writing Festival

They say you can’t go home again. There are all sorts of stories about people going back to a place that held a happy memory only to see broken sidewalks and smashed relationships. I don’t have that when I go back to Iowa City. Each time it looks better in my older and wiser eyes. The same can be said for my return last week to the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. I took the class Novel: The Next Draft lead by Sands Hall.

Some of the workshop participants.


This workshop focused on scene building. Novels are a combination of scene and summary. Summary moves the story along and scene adds the depth and details. The elements of a scene are





rationale ( my word–the why of the scene) What does it accomplish?


and dialogue.

A scene should have “metaphorical implications,” in other words, larger meaning. It should reveal something, move the story line forward, and include senses and emotion. Details are important but only if they add to the forward action. If they are mentioned they should bring something valuable to the story and not in Sands’s words be yellow Volkswagens that the reader must haul up a cliff only to find they have no meaning. Each scene should have a Setting, Activity, and Object.  In this way, fiction writing is like science–you must sift through all sorts of observations and select those that have significance. A  scientific report needs to have materials, methods, and data sections with the data arranged in a lovely manner.

Plot is moved forward by character. Characters should be unique and detailed. For more, here’s her book. 

This workshop focused on scene building and not the entire piece (although we had a synopsis of each novel.)  I’m going to try scene building in my Short Story Writing course too. Focusing on a scene helps push the whole piece forward and keeps workshop comments directed on the writing. We had word limits for each piece presented to help move each class along efficiently. This was good training in selecting meaningful details.

Other ideas I garnered for my Short Story Writing course are:

1. Have students memorize a scene from a short story. This helps develop an understanding of scene and an appreciation for language.

2. To give them plenty of prompts.

3. To have a few rules such as not ending the story with a death, not ending the story with “it was just a dream,”and  no solving problems with guns. We as a culture have gotten to a point where guns are the beginning, climax, and resolution of every story and not only is it depressing, it is boringly uncreative.

For my own writing, Sands encouraged me to try the omniscient point of view. She even knew why I avoid it–because it’s the voice of the Empire, some dude looking over the whole word and declaring what he knows about it to be absolute truth. Since most of my novels are turning out to be about Empire,  it would be a twist to use this point of view.

Everyone in my workshop had a novel that had depth and purpose. This workshop was fun, helpful and unique in its focus on the writing craft.  I highly recommend the Iowa Summer Writing Festival for all who truly love to write.

As an added plus, here’s a link to the novel I developed during this workshop






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